Thursday, September 22, 2011

Buying a side of beef: Lesson six: Transportation and storage

Buying a side of beef can be an economical way of filling the freezer and supporting your local farmer but the process can be extremely confusing for the first time customer. Here's a detailed primer on how it works and what to expect. 

In this lesson of our "How Stuff Works" series on how to buy a side of beef we discuss picking up the meat from the processor and proper storage.

If you are just joining us, be sure to catch up the other lessons in this series on how to buy a side of beef:


The butcher called and the beef is ready for pickup. Yay! Don't dash out the door just yet though, one of my guiding principles of the ranch is to never bring anything (cows, pigs, chickens, meat, fruit trees) home unless it has a home (a pen, yard, freezer or space to go). The last thing you want to do is bring home a year's supply of meat only to find that you lack enough room in the freezer.

How much freezer space?
A quarter share of beef will be between 80 and 120 pounds (depending on hanging weight as well as the number of boneless cuts included). Generally it is recommended to have about 3 cubic feet of freezer space for a quarter share. If your refrigerator freezer is completely empty (no ice cream , ice cube trays, cold packs, frozen veggies, no nothing!) you might be able to fit all the meat in there but I do not personally recommend storing the beef in this manner but instead encourage storage in a chest type freezer. If you are buying a half or whole beef, a chest freezer is required unless you plan on splitting with friends.

Why a chest freezer?
The main enemy of frozen foods, particularly meats is the threat of freezer burn. Freezer burn occurs when the temperature of the freezer fluctuates causing repeated micro-freeze thaw cycles on the surface of the meat. Frost free freezers do well to keep ice from accumulating in the box but do so at the disadvantage of the foods stored inside. Stored properly in a frost chest freezer (one that has to be unplugged and allowed to thaw out manually) that has an internal temperature of 0 degrees or below, your meat will keep for at least 18 months (though I have personally stored meat for several years with only slight changes in the color, but not the taste, of the meat).

Since you will be storing a considerable investment of meat in the freezer, if you will be purchasing a new chest freezer, it is recommended to buy a chest freezer with a lid on top instead of a standing freezer with a swinging door. The reason lies in the nature of cold air sinking - in a chest freezer you open the lid and rat around looking for something good to eat, find it and close the lid. All of the cold air is still settled around the product. However with a standing freezer, the instant the door opens, all of the cold airs floods out.

If you buy a new freezer be sure to plug it in a few days before picking up the meat. I recommend purchasing a small freezer thermometer to ensure the actual interior temperature is below zero degrees.

Now that the meat has a home when it comes home, we are ready to pack up for the butcher. Many butchers expect customers to bring their own coolers and boxes to transport the meat home (though I have used one facility that packs everything in cardboard boxes for you but the customer paid for this convenience in the form of higher per pound processing fees). Occasionally the butcher might have a few boxes kicking around but often they do not and unless you want to throw all the meat loose in the backseat, it is best to bring along something to haul the product home. We tend to use coolers and rubber-maid totes for hauling meat home from the processor though I always bring along a handful of those reusable grocery bags just in case we need a little more room. A quarter beef should fit in two mid-size coolers.

Bringing the meat home
Once you pay the butcher for the processing fees (consider bringing along a checkbook, just in case, as a surprising number of butchers do not take debit/credit), they will set your crates of meat out on the loading area. For the most part, they will not help you load the meat into your vehicle. Keep this in mind as you pack your boxes and coolers - either pack into boxes already in the vehicle or don't get them too heavy to lift (and remember to lift with your legs not your back!).

Do I need to bring ice or dry ice?
In general you will not need to bring ice with you to keep the meat cool. It comes out of the butcher's freezers at below zero degrees will keep itself cold for the ride home. Our processor is about an hour and half from the ranch and even on hot summer days, the butcher paper may get a little bit of condensation on it but the meat is still frozen rock solid.

Filling the freezer
As the neurotically organized person that I am, I record everything that goes into the freezer then later I tape a list with the types of cuts and the quantities on the door. Then we can check off what we take out and know at a glance what is still in there. It also helps us even our pace of consumption. Since most beef is sold in the fall, the novelty of eating all the steaks and ground beef first in the fall and winter will lead to a freezer full of roasts, stew meat and short ribs (all items that must cook for a long time) in the hot summer months. 

Another issue I see with many first time customers is what I like to call "freezer fatigue". Folks eagerly jump into sampling all the new cuts of beef in the freezer, then within a few months they are a little tired of beef but feel silly purchasing other meats (pork, chicken, seafood and so forth) when they already have a full freezer at home. By six months or so, they are so sick of beef, they take a break from it entirely. Relax! It is not a race, the meat won't go bad and it is OK to enjoy other types of meat too. The beef is meant to be stored for a long time, think of it as a year's supply.

Thawing beef
Many of first time customers are also weekly shoppers and as such, any meat for the week is purchased fresh. It can take a bit of adjustment to plan meals farther in advance to allow the beef to thaw. The easiest way is to plan a meal out in advance and put the beef in the fridge to thaw for a few days. The microwave is always an option but since we only have grass-finished beef the microwave draws out too much of the precious moisture in the meat so we never use this method. Our favorite quick-thaw method involves removing the beef from the butcher paper, placing in a zipper lock bag and placing in a bowl of warm water for about thirty minutes, turning frequently and changing the water as need. It may not thaw down a huge roast in record time but works well for burger and steaks to get a meal on the table in a hurry.

Now that your freezer is well stocked, be sure to take out a package of steaks to celebrate your investment. Lesson seven will summarize the entire "Buying Beef 101" series and address any questions.

Lesson seven: Summary and Frequently Asked Questions

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